Saving Fort Worth's Hemphill Connector: City, other agencies pitching in to fund Near Southside tunnel, bridge project

Fort Worth’s Hemphill Connector – the long-delayed tunnel project beneath Interstate 30 and the Union Pacific Railroad that would link Hemphill Street on the Near Southside to downtown – appears to have new life after the city put it on hold last year because of big budget overruns.

The North Central Texas Council of Governments, Texas Department of Transportation and possibly Tarrant County may be able to fill the financial gap, city officials said.

Tuesday, Fort Worth City Council members agreed to vote March 1 on resuming an agreement with McCarthy Building Cos., which last year started construction on the project before the city put it on hold. McCarthy will be responsible for seeking a new project cost estimate.

“I think we’ve found a pathway forward, and I’m very pleased about that,” Ann Zadeh, the city council member whose district includes the Near Southside, said during a Tuesday afternoon council meeting.

On Feb. 9, representatives of COG, TxDOT and the city met to discuss whether those organizations have access to capital to help the city, which doesn’t have the extra money. Potential revenue sources include available Regional Transportation Council funds, matching state funds through TxDOT, and county money, the meeting participants concluded, according to a staff report to council members.

To move forward, the meeting participants wanted new estimates on the costs of remediating potential soil contamination, moving underground utilities, and construction.

COG and TxDOT’s interest comes from Hemphill’s potential as a connector of downtown to Interstate 20, said Jay Chapa, Fort Worth assistant city manager.
COG also provided some money for initial design of the proposed Hemphill Connector.

“They told us they’d be able to get money together to fill this gap,” Chapa said in an interview.

It will take 90-120 days from March 1 to get a new estimate, Chapa estimate. Then COG and TxDOT may have to go through their own processes to secure money, he said.

Voters approved the project more than 10 years ago, but its construction start was delayed by the need of the railroad and city to first make major improvements to Tower 55 downtown, which was one of the nation’s most clogged rail intersections.

The project includes the tunnel, new rail bridge, drainage and other amenities. The connector would create an extension of Hemphill from its intersection at West Vickery Boulevard to Taylor Street at West Lancaster Avenue downtown on the north side of the tunnel. It would ease traffic flow between the Southside and downtown. The roadway would be a four-lane major arterial comprising 12-foot lanes, retaining walls, streetlights and traffic signals.

McCarthy launched construction last Spring on the drainage and completed it. But while the firm was doing the drainage work, new estimated total costs to complete the entire project came in at $44.9 million, $18 million higher than the $26.6 million the city had allocated for the project based on estimates from July 2013.

Under the new numbers, construction costs, the biggest part of the budget, were estimated at $27.8 million, up from $14.9 million in the 2013 estimates. Estimated costs for utilities, an agreement with the railroad, engineering, right of way, project management, and material testing were also higher. The new estimates also contained $4-$5 million in contingencies that could ultimately come off the final numbers.

Stakeholders along the Hemphill Corridor, a 5.2- mile stretch between West Vickery and Interstate 20, have been looking forward to the link to downtown for years.
A delay in it will likely slow down nascent redevelopment that’s underway in the corridor, they say. A group of community and business leaders has been working on establishing a street plan for Hemphill that will fit into an ongoing redraw of the city’s master thoroughfare plan. The street plan is one of several tools that leaders established on the Near Southside years ago that led to the revitalization of West Magnolia Avenue, West Rosedale Street, and South Main Street.

Now the group wants to bring the same toolbox, including design guidelines and related zoning and financial incentives, to Hemphill.